Iconic Ringtones: What made them so catchy?
As uninteresting as ringtones may be, there are two that are incredibly iconic, but how did Nokia and Apple manage to create the world's most recognisable ringtones?
As the vast majority of the population began using smartphones, they became an integral factor in our daily lives. The world became more accessible to millions, sparking a wave of new companies emerging to monopolise this opportunity; pre-existing companies either jumped on the bandwagon or faded into history. Logos, slogans, and jingles became more recognisable and began to shape the world we know today.
The capabilities of smartphones today is leaps and bounds beyond what Alexander Graham Bell could have ever imagined. Inventing and patenting the first practical telephone in 1876, Bell made the first telephone call ever recorded. Calling his assistant, Thomas Watson, and requesting he come to his side. How Watson was notified of the phone call had been by the sound of a bell struck by a solenoid-controlled hammer creating a short, repetitive shrill.
Nowadays, we are notified of an incoming call by any sound or song we choose, but some ringtones are so recognisable, they’re iconic. The first being the Nokia Tune.
The Nokia Tune was first released by the Finnish telecommunications company in 1994 when they released their Nokia 2110 under the title Ringtone Type 7. The short monophonic ringtone had initially been a musical phrase from Spanish guitarist and composer Francisco Tárrega’s Gran Vals. His song was first used by Nokia in 1994 when it was the background music to a commercial for the Nokia 1011; the exert of ‘Gran Vals’ included the iconic phrase and was later turned into the Nokia Tune ringtone.
In 2000, Nokia released two South Korea-exclusive devices (Nokia 8877 and Nokia 8887), which were the first mobile phones to have polyphonic ringtones and held the first polyphonic MIDI version of the Nokia Tune. This polyphonic version was later released to the rest of the world in 2002 in the Nokia 3510. Since then, many versions of the Nokia Tune have been made and are still included in their list of pre-installed ringtones.
This ringtone is arguably one of the most well-known tunes of the 21st century; in 2009, it was estimated that the tune was heard 1.8 billion times per day worldwide, roughly 20,000 times per second!
The only other ringtone that has come close to the fame and prominence of the Nokia Tune would be the iPhone’s Marimba.
During the noughties, the most popular ringtone was, of course, the Nokia Tune, and Steve Jobs had grown a particular dislike for it, believing that even though it was an adequate call alert, it was far from perfect. Jobs did not envision the iPhone having simple, low-quality beeps and MIDI ringtones that would have to be bought and cumbersomely installed.
When the iPhone was released, it included 25 original ringtones approved by Jobs, including the famous Marimba tune, that had been scientifically created as optimal ringtones.
Scientists at Bell Laboratories held a series of studies on different types of ringers, studying tonal quality, duration, and decibel levels needed for the brain to recognise that a call alert was occurring. It was discovered that a ringtone needed to fall between an audio range that was central to human hearing (between 2 to 4 kHz, with a dynamic range of roughly 96 dB.) We as humans have evolved a relatively high level of sound discrimination between these levels as it is precisely where most spoken languages are heard. For a ringtone to be recognised by the brain, the timbre of the audio ideally should pulse to a full dynamic range to nearly no sound within a 3 to 5-second cycle, according to the Bell Laboratory’s Research.
Dr. Gerhard Lengeling, a former medical doctor turned software engineer, helped develop the widely popular applications Logic Pro and GarageBand, as well as the iPhone's 25 original ringtones. He took Bell Labs research and applied it to the creation of Apple's high-quality instrumental audio files that could even be used to re-create the iconic Marimba ringtone.
So why was Marimba, out of all the original ringtones, made the default ringtone?
The Marimba ringtone is unique enough that the human ear could easily detect the sound even when layered in a crowd of other sounds. To Jobs, the Marimba ringtone hinted at the cultural sophistication, and eclectic style Jobs had envisioned the iPhone having as a product for the everyday public. During the first year of the iPhone’s release, the Marimba ringtone acted as a badge of honour to the early adopters of Apple’s iPhone. The high-quality and unique ringtone, combined with a limited selection of other ringtones, caused the Marimba ringtone to become well-known as the number of iPhones sold worldwide grew every day.